Can you imagine hand feeding 20,000 mouths in a drought?

Continuing our Lessons Learnt from the Drought series with Young Farming Champions Peta Bradley and Bessie Thomas

Firstly some background for this story.  In Australia, a large land holding used for livestock production is known as a ‘station’. Most stations are livestock specific – classed as either sheep stations or cattle stations depending upon the type of stock raised – which is, in turn, dependent upon the suitability of the country and the rainfall. The owner of a station is known as a grazier, or pastoralist and, in many cases, Australian stations are operated on a pastoral lease. Australian sheep and cattle stations can be thousands of square kilometres in area, with the nearest neighbour hundreds of kilometres away. Some stations have over 20,000 sheep in their care.

All stock workers need to be interested in animals and handle them with patience and confidence. They need the skills to make accurate observations about livestock like judging an animal’s age by examining its teeth, and experience in treating injuries and illnesses as well as routine care requirements such as feeding, watering, mustering, droving, branding, castrating, ear tagging, weighing, vaccination and dealing with predators.

Those caring for sheep must also deal with flystrike treatments, worm control and lamb marking. Pregnant livestock need special care in late pregnancy and stockmen may have to deal with difficult births.

Apart from livestock duties, a stock person will also to inspect, maintain and repair fences, gates and yards damaged by storms, fallen trees, livestock and wildlife. Source

In the first two instalments of our drought series we talked to Young Farming Champions predominantly involved in cropping operations. Today we speak to Bessie Thomas and Peta Bradley who represent sheep and wool, and discover the strategies they have employed to survive, the changes drought has enabled and the importance of mental health and family.  Bessie and Peta’s family farms are both in NSW but very different in terms of topography , sheep carrying capacity (10:1)  and acreage  (20:1)

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The last two years have reminded both urban and rural Australia that drought is an inevitable part of the Australian landscape and its impacts are wide reaching.  Both Bessie and Peta’s families know their first priority is their families and the animals in their care and its imperative to access drought response resources promptly and maintain wellbeing.

Team Thomas

Bessie and husband Shannan from Burragan Station, 100km east of Wilcannia* in western New South Wales, run a merino operation in partnership with Shannan’s parents.

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Team Bradley 

Peta comes from Armatree, 100km northwest of Dubbo where her parents, Jenny and Craig, run a Border Leciester Stud and commercial merinos (with cereal and pulse cropping).

For both properties 2017 and 2018 were years of below average rainfall. “In 2018 we had 83mm for the year which is less than 30% of the annual average, and the year before was also only about 60% of the annual average,” Bessie says. “It has turned the countryside to dust and dried up dams, and the heat waves have cancelled any moisture from showers we have had.”

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Feeding sheep at Burragan Station 

Similarly Armatree has been reduced to a 300mm annual rainfall (down from the average of 520mm). “This equates to our farm being relocated to Broken Hill,” Peta says. “2019 has commenced with January being the hottest on record and zero rainfall recorded on the chart.”

Strategies common to both operations are reducing sheep numbers and feeding stock they have identified as drought resilient. At Burragan they have de-stocked by 50% and sold all of their 500 cattle, while at Armatree stock have been reduced by over a third.

“We’ve been feeding for more than 18 months which affects finances, creates time pressures and puts pressure on vehicles and trailers. It becomes mentally and physically exhausting,” Bessie says. “Feeding out hay in heat, wind and dust is some kind of torture.”

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The Bradleys ( Jenny and Craig pictured here in 2014 ) are looking forward to seeing barley crops like this one when the rains return Source

“Our farm stores enough fodder to feed all stock including finishing lambs for a full twelve month period, well beyond a normal drought,” Peta says, “but we used all stored fodder in 2017 and have had to purchase fodder for 2018. To accommodate this cost we have maintained selected breeding stock only. We have also sold lambs as early as possible after weaning, undertaken measurements on stud stock lambs as early as permissible and selected the stock we want to keep  well ahead of normal time frames.

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Some lambs getting ready to be weighed through the automatic drafter/scales at the Bradley’s farm.

The measurements the Bradley’s take before they decide which animals they will keep include:

  • Body weights (weaning – 12 weeks of age, 5 months and 7 months)
  • Ultrasound fat and muscle measurements
  • Scrotal circumference on rams

In total an animal that is retained as a breeding ewe on the Bradley farm has in excess of 50 measurements recorded in her lifetime. These measurements are taken to be put into the genetic evaluation for sheep – allowing them to choose the animals that are genetically the best to breed from.

Weaning early, utilising confinement feeding and drought lots and always remaining flexible in our management decisions have been ways of dealing with this drought.

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The Bradley’s select their sheep for productivity. Every now and then you come across a special sheep. This ewe is having triplets again – for the fourth year in a row! She has reared 9 lambs in three years. 

Weaning early in drought is important as lambs are competing with their mothers for grain. This allows the ewes an opportunity to get back into condition faster and also removes the competition for grain and fodder from the breeding ewes on the lambs.

Even the wool clip has been negatively impacted. Heavy, dust-laden wool sells for fewer dollars per bale.

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But surprisingly the drought has had upsides. For years the Thomas’ had been discussing keeping Burragan purely as a merino property and transitioning Shannan’s parent’s property into dorpers, and that is a vision the drought has enabled/forced them to do. The drought has also highlighted the need for planning and flexibility in plans, and the critical need to put people first.

“Ensuring that we make time for ourselves and the family whether it is maintaining exercise routines, weekends away or taking family holidays are as important, if not more so, as practical farming,” Peta says, “as is the importance of networking to ensure we are operating at best practice.”

Bessie copes with the drought by downloading her thoughts and images through social media and this compilation of her 2018  year has led to the family being offered a week’s holiday at Port Stephens, courtesy of the huge generosity of Alloggio.com.au owners Will and Karen Creedon, the Port Stephens Council and Hon. Scot MacDonald MLC

And although the constant raised dust is destructive to the land – filling grids and yards, blocking gateways and covering fences – Bessie can still find joy.

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“The dust storms are ominous and interesting, I quite enjoy the dramatic skies that come with them – as long as I am safely in the house!” Bessie says

*Think it’s hot at your place? A property near Wilcannia broke the record for Australia’s highest overnight temperature in mid-January, reaching a minimum of 35.9C.

Thanks Bessie and Peta we know that by you sharing your stories you will give hope to others facing similar challenges

#StrongerTogether #YouthVoices19 #ThisisAusAg #YouthinAg

See Andrea Davy’s wonderful story on Bessie in the Rural Weekly here 

Read Peta’s story in The Land here

Visit the NSW DPI Drought Hub here for more information

Young Farming Champions Marlee Langfield and Keiley O’Brien share what the drought has taught them

Continuing our Lessons Learnt from the Drought Series. Today Grain Young Farming Champions Marlee Langfield and Keiley O’Brien share what the 2018 Drought has taught them.

 

 Marlee Langfield ( photo Cowra Guardian) and Keiley O’Brien ( photo Western Magazine) 

Young Farming Champions Marlee Langfield and Keiley O’Brien are two young women taking drought by the horns as they embark upon new agricultural roles with their partners in central New South Wales.

At 23 Marlee is CEO and manager of her family farm “Wallaringa” near Cowra, where she and her partner Andrew Gallagher produce grains and oilseeds. Just up the road at the Rawsonville Crossroads between Narromine and Dubbo Keiley, 23, and her partner Ross Noble run a diversified contracting business.

Drought has affected both businesses in the last two years and shows little signs of easing in 2019 so how has the season affected Marlee and Keiley and what lessons have they learnt?

“We began our 2018 sowing program planting dry into marginal moisture with our fingers crossed for follow up rain,” Marlee says. “Then we received a break half way through the program which restored our faith. The crops thrived off 5 to 13mm rain fall events throughout the majority of the growing season which is significantly less than the ‘norm’.”

However with droughts often come severe frosts, which affected the low lying areas of Marlee’s canola. “The main stem of a canola plant acts like a timeline displaying a visual of plant health by the appearance of the pods: shrivelled up and discoloured pods means it has been frosted, plump and elongated means it has enjoyed ideal conditions,” Marlee explains. Frost damaged canola has extremely low yield potential thus the decision was made to cut 12% of the Wallaringa canola crop for silage –which went as good feed to dairy cows.

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Sowing canola seed with an air seeder

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The canola plant pocks through 12 days after sowing 

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227 days from start to finish – harvesting canola windrows in December 

2018 highlighted for Marlee the difference small management decisions could make to the farming operation and also brought unexpected bonuses – with little rainfall there was low disease pressure and therefore reduced monetary inputs. “All things considered we really did grow a remarkable crop,” she says with optimism often missing in drought-related conversations.

 

Hay making comprises the bulk of Keiley and Ross’ contracting business but they learnt early on to diversify to spread their risk. In 2018 this decision proved invaluable. “In a good year such as 2016 we bale around 15,000 large square and round bales,” Keiley says, “but in poor years, like 2017 and 2018 we averaged around 5,000 large square and round bales.” To support the business they grow irrigated lucerne for the horse market and offer sowing, spraying and harvesting services to clients.

Drought exacerbates financial pressures and Keiley used the dry time to upskill. In December she graduated from the University of New England with a Bachelor of Agriculture/Bachelor of Business majoring in marketing and this year is undertaking a Certificate IV in Bookkeeping and Accounting.

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Keiley graduated from University of New England with a Bachelor of Agriculture and a Bachelor of Business Majoring in Marketing. 

She and Ross also attended a Young Farmers Business Program in Dubbo.

“We were in the middle of re-structuring our business from a partnership to a company so the YFBP really helped us get our head around what we were doing and broke those big and complicated notions into easily understood blocks,”

“Another highlight was goal setting. We have goals of what we want to do and where we want to go but going through the SMART approach and physically writing them down on paper really re-enforced to us our aspirations and future direction. Mingling with other young people who had a passion for agriculture was also great because we made some good mates and industry connections.” she says.

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Keiley and her partner Ross and daughter Ruby 

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Andrew (left) and Marlee with agronomist Baden Dickson ( centre) Source The Land

Both Marlee and Keiley recognise the support and guidance they have received as they transition into business owners and operators in their own right. From a young age Marlee worked alongside her parents on Wallaringa and absorbed the world of grains, and then later gained off-farm experience to enable her to take the reins of the family property. Keiley credits Ross’ father with giving him deep foundations in the working of land and machinery, as well as providing equity to get their joint business off the ground.

Support has also come from a range of industry advisers and local businesses and Marlee credits her agronomist, Baden Dickson, in particular for supplying much needed expertise.

Going forward Marlee and Keiley will put lessons learnt into practice and continue their educational journeys, learning from those who have gone before them.

“As young people with a relatively young business we have learnt to be open with the way we do things,” Keiley says. “You don’t always have to take on board everything everyone says, but you should always thank them for taking the time to share their knowledge and ideas with you.”

And when the drought finally relinquishes its hold, what then?

“If we can grow a remarkable crop in one of the most challenging seasons then I can’t wait to see what we can do when it DOES rain,” Marlee says.

and Marlee will be documenting every step of her farming journey with her magnificent prize winning photos

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#drought #YouthVoices19 #YouthinAg #StrongerTogether #ThisisAusAg

 

Young Farming Champions Dan Fox and Emma Ayliffe find farming in a drought is a steep learning curve

Young Farming Champions Dan Fox and Emma Ayliffe come from different ends of the farm ownership spectrum but both have learnt valuable lessons as they have embarked upon new enterprises during a drought.

Dan, the 2018 Australian Innovation Farmer of the Year is a fifth-generation farmer, whose family have been farming in the Marrar district of southern New South Wales for more than 80 years. Over the last decade Dan has been helping move the farm from a traditional mixed sheep and cropping property to a continuous cropping enterprise using regenerative agriculture, and in the last two years he has introduced even more changes.

Dan has planted cover crop brassica/legume/grass pasture mixes of lentils (left) oats,cereal ryegrass, filed peas, faba beans, turnips and tillage radish which not only enrich the soil they also provide highly nutritious feed for sheep  

Emma Ayliffe is a well-respected agronomist, private consultant and business owner who in 2018 bought her first farm with partner Craig Newham at Burgooney near Lake Cargelligo in the Central West of NSW, where they set about growing wheat, barley and lambs.

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Emma Ayliffe and Craig Newham bought a farm together in one of the worst drought years on record 

On first glance it may appear Dan and Emma have little in common; one is changing a generational farm, another is starting a farm from scratch. But like all farmers they share the inconsistencies of the weather, and they realise that it is not so much what happens to them, but how they react to it, that makes the difference.

“Our average rainfall is 500mm but in the last twelve months we only received 200mm, and we also had some of our most severe frosts on record, yet we were able to harvest wheat at the area average of 2.5tonnes/ha,” Dan says.

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Harvesting Wheat on the Fox Family Farm

This amazing result is due to changes Dan has implemented in the last two years to conserve soil moisture during the summer fallow period.

“We got 100mm of rain in the fallow period and looked after it with our stubble, fallow sprays and groundcover management. That’s the only reason we ended up with a crop, because of the stored soil moisture before the crop went in. Years like this, which is one of the driest we’ve seen, show this approach to be a very valuable tool and dry years are when you really learn. Anyone can grow a crop in a good year but it takes a bit of skill in a drought.”

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Harvesting lentils 

Emma follows the principles of moisture conservation but in her case even the early rains were missing.

“We didn’t get a good break to sow into and then we never really had any good in-crop rainfall.  This meant poor to no yields for most of our cropping area and not much stock feed resulting in us sourcing grain for our sheep and grazing off crops,” she says.

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No shortage of dust storms but very little rain 

It was a testing year to start farming but valuable lessons were learnt.

“Fortunately we both work other jobs to help keep some money rolling it and we learnt about diversification. Sheep were an amazing asset to us this year.”

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Drought puts a lot of pressure on farmers and their animals – with hand feeding a daily ritual 

Speaking from her own experiences in this challenging dry period Emma has this advice:

“Smile! We can’t make it rain. Do your budgets so you know what you’re up for. Don’t be scared to ask for help or advice from people who have been doing it longer. When you find yourself in the dust stand up, brush it off and go again. A new year means 365 days to kick goals.”

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And how does the prolonged dry effect confidence going forward?

“This is farming, This is the “gamble” that we take to grow food and fibre. It reiterates to us the importance of having a good drought management strategy in our business to support us in tough times. As a farmer it makes me want to work harder to learn how to do more with less, as an advisor it makes me admire the strength and resilience of the growers I work with even more so.”  Emma says. 

Dan, too, is optimistic.

“We’re only 2 years in and I’ve got a lot of confidence that the longer we stick with this system to build soil health and reduce our harmful insecticides and cut our fungicides right out, the better it is going to be. I think if we get a dry period such as this in ten years’ time our results will be better again – we’re pretty excited by the future.” he says. 

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